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24 Aug 2023

The women who painted Kilbarchan

Written by Jenny MacLeod, Curatorial Intern
An oil painting of a group of people in a weaving workshop. An old man sits at the wooden loom, adjusting the threads. A woman sits nearby, at a spinning wheel. A group of three men gather at the other side of the room: one reads the paper, one sits on a chair looking at the loom, and the other leans against the back of the chair.
The Old Weaving Shop, Kilbarchan by Mary Nicol Neill Armour
Research undertaken by Jenny MacLeod, a PhD researcher from the University of Glasgow, has revealed new insights into the women artists represented in the Weaver’s Cottage art collection.

Stepping into Weaver’s Cottage is an immersive experience. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the weaving industry was the beating heart of Kilbarchan, and many of the objects in Weaver’s Cottage reflect the importance of weaving to the local community during its heyday.

You can’t help but notice the variety of paintings hanging on the walls. Some of these are presented in grand, gilt frames; others are more modestly presented. The subject matter ranges from townscapes of Steeple Street and Church Street in Kilbarchan to portraits by artists such as London painter Charles Haslewood Shannon (1863–1937). Some of the most significant pieces are those that depict the final decades of Kilbarchan’s weaving industry, the majority of which were executed by women.

One of the most striking pictures in the cottage is a small watercolour by Edinburgh artist Hannah Clarke Preston MacGoun (1864–1913). Born in Edinburgh, MacGoun received her artistic education from the Edinburgh School of Art, where she was tutored by artist Robert McGregor (1847–1922) between 1887 and 1892. Her final year of studies took her to Germany and Holland, before she settled in Edinburgh where she would establish a successful career as a painter and illustrator.

A watercolour of a man sitting at a large wooden loom, weaving cloth. The painting is framed in a chunky gilt frame.
Weaver at a Loom, Hannah Clarke Preston MacGoun, watercolour on paper, signed and dated 1899

Painted in 1899, this picture is a classic example of MacGoun’s work in watercolour. It derives from the French tradition of painting, with its characteristic tonal style and blurred background, and especially her use of harmonious greys and flecks of white for hints of light. She favoured a distinctive colour palette with a grey tonality, probably influenced by the likes of Whistler and Courbet.

She worked in a social realist style, capturing the lives of ordinary people in domestic settings. Depictions of rural labour were ubiquitous among Scottish painters, particularly during the second half of the 19th century. However, rather than choosing to capture the suffering of rural labourers, MacGoun preferred to paint observant portraits of women and their young children. Many of these show the joyous moments in everyday life.

In this watercolour, a lone weaver sits at the loom. While the compact nature of the weaver’s workshop can at first appear oppressive, MacGoun has instead highlighted details in gouache to uplift the atmosphere. She has carefully recreated the structure of the weaver’s loom, including the beams and treadles as well as the threads coming in front of the weaver. The rays of light, pouring in through the small window, highlight the weaver’s gentle expression and his focus on the task at hand. There is no drudgery in this composition; rather she has chosen to record the intricacies of a handmade craft during an increasingly industrial age. MacGoun’s respect for the weaver and his craft is evident.

A 200-year-old wooden hand loom is set up with orange threads. It is huge! It has the wool threaded into various wooden parts. Pedals can be seen in a hole in the stone floor.

Over 30 years later, another female artist followed in the footsteps of her predecessors, painting what she observed in the weaving town of Kilbarchan. Although the setting is the same as MacGoun’s, it is the women rather than the men who are at the focus of this picture. Kilbarchan artist Alice Ramsay (1906–75) depicts Mirren and Bella Borland at their weaving shop at 5 Gateside Place. Bella is seated at a handloom, weaving a checked black and white cloth, while Mirren is seated at a muckle wheel, winding green wool onto pirns. At the time, the Borlands were believed to be the oldest living family practising handloom weaving in Kilbarchan.

An oil painting of two women sitting at a large wooden loom, weaving. The woman in the foreground is spinning green thread through a spinning wheel. The woman in the background is operating the wooden foot pedals of the loom.
Weavers, Alice Ramsay, oil on board, signed

Painted around 1926, Ramsay used vibrant colours in an almost mural-style piece. There was no weaving lineage in Ramsay’s family; in fact, her family were one of the most successful fleshers in the area, residing at the Old Manse. However, an artistic flair was present: the painting of Kilbarchan Church that hangs in Weaver’s Cottage was painted by her father, who also exhibited with the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (RGI). In addition, her uncle, Robert Ramsay, was the president of the Johnstone and District Arts and Crafts Club. Alice herself went on to study at the Glasgow School of Art between 1921–26, specialising in drawing and painting.

After completing her studies, in 1926 she exhibited with the RGI where she contributed a large painting entitled Weavers. Her work was notable enough to be written about in an exhibition review, which appeared in the Paisley Daily Express: ‘The weaving industry is contributed by Miss Alice Ramsay, Old Manse, Kilbarchan, who with a large picture in Gallery 3 shows two women at work, a subject dear to the hearts of the people in this district, and one treated by the artist with much skill.’ When considering the subject matter, it is highly likely the painting in Weaver’s Cottage is the same painting that was exhibited in 1926.

Ramsay exhibited only once more with the Royal Scottish Academy. It seems that after this short period of working in the 1920s, she ceased painting. According to Peter McEwan’s Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture, Ramsay was prevented from pursuing an artistic career due to the ill-health of her brother and mother. Like many women artists of this time, domestic duties took priority, and caring for elderly or ill relatives normally fell upon the women in the family.

Reels of brightly coloured thread are displayed on the wooden shelves of a dresser.

The final painting at Weaver’s Cottage to be considered is a unique piece by expressionist painter Mary Nicol Neill Armour (1902–2000). A contemporary of Ramsay from their GSA days, and a well-established painter of flowers and landscapes, Armour arrived in Kilbarchan from Milngavie in 1953. She had been in Kilbarchan for two years before she was approached by a man called James Boyd, who was the General Manager of the Shettleston Co-operative Society. Little is known about Boyd, his connection to Kilbarchan or why Armour was chosen to depict this scene. However, it is thought Boyd required the services of a local artist of repute to capture the last days of Kilbarchan’s weaving heritage, which took him to Armour.

The picture itself is a fascinating visual document of what is believed to the weaving workshop of Francis Stewart (1870–1958), one of the last surviving weavers of Kilbarchan. Although Armour had only been in Kilbarchan a short while, this oil painting demonstrates her enthusiasm in learning about Kilbarchan’s weaving heritage. Her attention to detail indicates she was asking questions of the weavers in order to create a working document and accurately portray their craft. Among the figures included are Stewart, who sits at the loom; John Houston (1877–1959), who is seated to the left of the picture; Mr Webster, who is standing behind Houston; and Mr Downie, pictured reading a newspaper.

Armour executed very few figure studies, and so The Old Weaving Shop is unique in her output. Her ability to capture liveliness and colour in her floral studies extended to this composition, which shows affinity with the figure studies painted by Anne Redpath (1895–1965) in the mid-20th century. Colour was a dominant force in Scottish painting by this time, headed by artists such as Redpath and Sir William MacTaggart (1903–81). Although Armour was not by any means a social realist, she has effectively captured the humour and community spirit of the small community of weavers and workers, just as her predecessors had done at the turn of the century. Armour herself was known for being ‘plain-spoken and unpretentious’, which is reflected in compositions such as this.

Although there were only a small number of women who worked as weavers in Kilbarchan, there were many more who were employed in ancillary roles, such as beamers and spinners. Ramsay and Armour’s pictures act not only as visual documents to the last days of Kilbarchan’s weaving industry, but also highlight the importance of women workers to its survival. At first glance, the women appear to be subservient to the weavers; however theirs were highly skilled jobs. The operation of the pirn wheels, treadles and winders were specialist technical roles that were vital to the craft.

By the time of MacGoun’s painting in 1891, there were still over 700 weavers recorded in Kilbarchan. This figure had dropped to just 22 by the time of Ramsay’s composition in the late 1920s, and to only 2 by the time of Mary Armour’s study. While census records and newspaper reports can give us the numerical data about the Kilbarchan weaving industry, the pieces in Weaver’s Cottage give us a visual picture of a weaving workshop and the different elements within it. Not only that, these pictures shine a light on women workers – both those in the weaving industry and those working as professional artists.

Jenny MacLeod undertook her internship between January and June 2023 as part of a Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH) doctoral internship.

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